Brothers and sisters: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory. It is he whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. The word of the Lord. Alleluia, alleluia.-Colossians 1:24-29
In Colossians 1:24, Saint Paul tells us that in his sufferings, he “makes up for what is lacking” in Christ’s sufferings. This piece of Scripture can seem so confusing, but it is an incredibly important message for us today because the reality of suffering is such an impediment to the faith for so many people. I often hear it said, “If God is so good, why does he allow suffering?”
Good point. Why does he allow suffering in the world?
Everyone experiences suffering in various ways; not one of us is exempt or immune from pain. Each day we are confronted with both personal suffering (be it minimal or severe), and also communal suffering. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see some sort of suffering in the world when I turn on the TV or open up my news feed online. We’re confronted with hatred, terrorism, bigotry, religious persecution, and racism everyday. Together, we are living in a world that seems a little bit scarier than it ever has. Each one of us faces suffering in some form, and in many cases it proves to agitate the faith and cause doubt.
Yet Saint Paul is proclaiming something so incredibly profound: He is reminding us that the suffering you and I experience in this world has redemptive power.
How is that possible? We are not God. We did not bring about salvation for the history of humankind. We are fallible, and weak, and finite. The sufferings that Christ endured on the cross extend to the end of time—his great act of love reaches out to all of mankind so that we might share in salvation. So what could still be lacking in Christ’s suffering?
What’s lacking are the afflictions of the entire Church. Through the grace of the cross, we have been given the greatest gift of becoming the adopted sons and daughters of Christ, and as such, we are incorporated into his Body. Though the redemption offered through the sufferings of the Head is infinite, we participate in his sufferings and “make up for what is lacking” by clinging to our own crosses. We are called to take up our cross just as Christ took up his. Thus, suffering and self-denial are central to the Christian faith.
Saint Paul knew that when he suffered for the word of God, he was building up the Body of Christ. Similarly, when we endure suffering with the eyes of hope and faith we become witnesses to others of Christ’s eternal glory. We proclaim the truth that suffering, no matter how tough, is temporal. We proclaim, with tear-filled eyes, that we are a people of hope.
Rejoicing in our sufferings doesn’t mean that we won’t cry and we won’t experience pain. Look at Christ suffering on the cross. The greatest act of love in the history of the world was an endurance of affliction all the way to the end, but in his humanity Christ still asked the Father for his cup to pass, and he still cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me!” The beauty is that he willingly drank of the cup; he endured the suffering out of love for his people; he said, “Not my will, but yours be done.” We are called to participate in that same kind of beauty—the kind of love that is persevering and enduring. Suffering is powerful because it is can be fully transformative if we work with it and with God through the eyes of hope. Saint John Paul II explains that God not only allows suffering, but desires to act through it, because suffering throws man into the depths of his weakness and emptying of self, and when man is at his weakest, he is keenly perceptive to God’s presence. This is why Saint Paul “rejoices” in his sufferings, and Saint Faustina says that it is in suffering that “we learn who our true friend is.” Similarly, Blessed Mother Teresa says,
Though we all will face suffering in our lives, my hope is that in the midst of it, we will turn to find the face of our Lord Jesus, who suffered and gave his life for us…and we will rejoice.